When these words appear in print, the world as I know it will have become a bit bleaker. A veterinarian will have made a house call to visit Nelson, a large, sweet dog whose time has come.
After weeks and weeks of appetite problems and vomiting and ongoing unpleasantries and frustrations that only the most devoted canine caregiver could endure, Nelson received a diagnosis of stomach cancer and a grim, grim prognosis two weeks ago. By then, he was barely eating, and with the official pronouncement — almost like he knew what the vet had said — he just quit eating altogether, with only an occasional interest in something quirky like a pizza crust or dollop of hummus.
He lost weight and strength. He became a shadow of his former self, and it grew clear that it was time to say goodbye as hearts broke around Washington, D.C., and beyond.
Nelson, a Bullmastiff who weighed around 135 pounds when I met him, was one of the largest dogs I’ve known personally. I welcomed him into my home for extended stays and allowed him to drool on me without eliciting squeals of disgust. (Okay, maybe there was an occasional squeal.) I met him a year and a half ago, when he came to live with my best friend Lyn. As long as I’d known Lyn, from September 1992 until November 2001, she’d been one of those lesbians with cats who always sort of marveled at dog people, both fascinated with the intricacies of such a different lifestyle and relieved that she didn’t have to shoulder the burdens that dog people suffer.
She’d watched my household grow from a one-dog house to a three-dog house, as the addition of our housemate, Chris, meant the expansion of our petting zoo when she brought two Bullmastiffs into our home. Like everyone who can get past the massive size of the breed — extra-large, unbelievably big until you stand one of them next to a Great Dane or an English Mastiff — Lyn was charmed by the “bullies,” but content, I always thought, to keep a felines-only home.
That fall of 2001, some friends told Chris that they had a dog in need of a new home. He was quite a catch — a champion show dog who was staying in a house with a few too many other dogs, and needed more one-on-one attention than he was getting. I sent out an e-mail at work, because I’d taken the Bullmastiffs into the office with me a few times and the breed had acquired many admirers there. I thought maybe one of those admirers might be interested in hearing more about this dog who needed a home — and we were working at a gay business, so a sweet, handsome boy who answered to “Nelly” had to be a draw.
I got one e-mail in response, and it came from the coworker who happened to be my best friend. I hadn’t even thought to discuss the situation with her before I approached the full staff, because there was, as far as I was concerned, no chance she’d be interested. To my surprise and her own, I was wrong.
She responded to me with uncertainty and anxiety, but for some reason she felt pulled to discuss the topic. Lucky for her and for Nelson, no one else jumped at the chance to adopt this nearly 5-year-old dog, who weighed more than Lyn herself. Conversation accelerated that day until Lyn announced plans to “freak out a little and then calm down and hopefully be able to make a reasoned decision.”
Once we both recovered from the shock of her interest, we sat down in my office and made a list of pros and cons. Pros like the sense of security she’d get with a large dog standing guard in her house in the city, cons like losing the ability to go out for a drink after work and not care what time she got home. Pros like meeting more people on the street (everyone knows dogs are an instant conversation topic); cons like the possibility of her cats, Leo and Lenny Dwayne, never forgiving her.
In the end, the pros won. After a visit from Henry, one of the amiable Bullmastiffs who shares my home, reassured Lyn that the cats would be fine, word traveled to Texas that Nelson could have a home in the nation’s capital if he wanted it. He made his way north with the help of Chris and Bill, owner of the kennel where Nelson was born, and arrived at Lyn’s door on Nov. 4, 2001.
All of the pros on Lyn’s list came true, and although some of the cons materialized, many were also set aside. The cats had no problem snuggling up right next to Nelson, and her desire for a guard dog took shape as Nelson would quietly but firmly stand between Lyn and the door whenever someone approached the house. The biggest pro of all was one we couldn’t possibly have quantified before she met Nelson and opened her door to him — the amount of love she’d give him, and the amount of drooly, sloppy love he’d happily return.
At first she feared that he wasn’t happy, because Bullmastiffs have these perpetually worried expressions on their faces. Sure, they took some time to get into a rhythm, but soon enough it happened. He quickly became one of the luckiest dogs I know, treated to “walkies” every morning to a vast expanse of green informally called Nelson Park.
At some point, Lyn’s joy for Nelson became too much to contain, and she launched an e-mail newsletter that started as a joke but then grew in popularity as dozens of friends and friends-of-friends asked to be added to the subscription list. The “Dog and Garden News Digest,” with humorous and touching headlines about Nelson and other elements of Lyn’s life, filled e-mail in-boxes around the country every day until the effort overwhelmed Lyn and she refashioned the missive into the “Dog, Cat and Garden Weekly.” Devoted fans near and far waited with bated breath for each delightful issue, almost always with a photo.
It has to be said that Nelson was a little too much man for me; I am most comfortable with a smaller dog, but without question I adored him. I saw the way Lyn’s eyes lit up when she talked about him, how proud she was when she introduced him to someone new. He charmed me by wagging his tail enthusiastically whenever he saw me, and he made my best friend happy. He was, as far as I was concerned, a hero.
When he became ill, and it became clear that this illness would take his life away years early, I watched Lyn crumble at the idea of losing her biggest boy. She took exceptional care of him, eventually making the heart-wrenching decision that he was experiencing more pain than joy in life, and that it was time to end that.
Here’s to Nelson, a really great dog who made the world a brighter place. We wish it could have been a longer stay in our corner of the universe, but wouldn’t change anything about the last year and a half except the need for it to end.
Kristina Campbell is a fan of all things Nelly and will send a photo of the beloved giant dog on request; send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column appears biweekly.
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